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Brehon Law Resources

The Brehon Law system, shining a light on Early Irish law

Learn about Ancient Ireland’s Laws and Customs through study of the Brehon Law system.

A student in our Mórrígan Intensive Programme asked me for resources on the Brehon Law system the other day, and I had to be honest – I didn’t have them to hand.

It’s not an area I’ve really dug into yet, though I know there’s a lot to study.

But look, as a teacher, one of the most ethical things that I hold sacred is that if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to… I tell them that honestly, and then I go and do my best to find quality resources where they (and me, usually) can go learn about the thing.

I found a few of my own, but the internet is full of mischief, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for – or looking at – it’s hard to tell what’s reliable.

Or not.

Luckily, I run a couple of Facebook Groups that are full of the smartest people I know, so I always know where to go for the best recommendations. And with this question, they did not let me down!

[Huge thanks to: Erynn Rowan Laurie, C. Lee Vermeers, Geraldine Byrne, Shane Broderick, Robert L. Barton, Pamela Holcombe… and to Elisabeth Marx for the original question.]

So, here’s our Brehon Law Resources list!

The Wiki Page is actually not bad, for starters, as Shane pointed out in the group post. I have mentioned elsewhere many times before; we don’t take Wikipedia info as definitive source material, but we can use the reference section as a good starting point for any research.

[Shane also has a blog post on this topic here.]

Fergus Kelly featured, as anyone who is even passing familiar with Early Irish Law will be entirely un-shocked by. Erynn kicked us off by recommending ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’ (book, 2005) as the classic – excellent for reference but it can be a little dense for a read through. This was backed up by Geraldine and others.

‘Whodunnit? Indirect evidence in early Irish Law’ (article, 2015) by Fergus Kelly also got an honourable mention from Pamela, and I’d like to add this link to his article about the legal status of trees: ‘Brehon Laws’ on Forestry Focus.

There’s a book online, written by Laurence Ginnell in 1894, which may be of interest. It’s on my list to work through… if you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments? It’s called ‘The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook’.

The Irish History Podcast is excellent (I’ve recommended it elsewhere too), and they did an episode called ‘Brehon Law: From Divorce to Irish Sex Magic’, which interviews Dr. Gillian Kenny – who also helped me out with an article on Gaelic Marriage Customs. The podcast description reads:

“Divorce and sex magic are not things we associate with medieval Ireland. However for over one thousand years Irish society was governed by a unique and radically different legal system called Brehon Law. In this podcast I interview Dr Gillian Kenny who explains what Brehon Law was and how it worked. She challenges widely held misconceptions and explains how divorce existed in medieval Ireland given it was banned in modern Ireland until 1995!. And then of course there is the sex magic.”

Listen to the Irish History Podcast on Spotify

I must say though, I actually do associate Medieval Ireland with divorce and sex magic. Quite regularly.

‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ by Nerys Patterson is a great book, which I’ve also recommended elsewhere, but Robert reminded me that it has a chapter on the Brehon Law system that… “takes a long view of the development and cultural context that can help to understand the specific laws as they exist within a system.”

For the more established scholar, we can move to Daniel Binchy’s edits of the ‘Corpus iuris Hibernici’, in seven volumes. You can see the CODECS listing for Volume 1 here. Liam Breatnach’s book – ‘A Companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Early Irish Law)’ – will help get you through.

Neil McLeod wrote a number of articles on the topic, which you can find indexed on CODECS here. C. Lee has found the 2 part “Interpreting Early Irish Law: Status and Currency” particularly useful.

And finally, Robin Chapman Stacey has two books that are a somewhat easier read, and very useful. They are:

What’s your favourite (or most useful) Brehon Law Resource?

If you have any other recommendations, or would like to add your opinion on the ones above, please feel free to leave a comment below!

The Badb in Bruiden Da Choca

Badb in Da Coca’s Hostel

Bruiden Da Choca, ‘Da Coca’s Hostel’, is known also as Togail Bruidne Da Choca(e) (‘The destruction of Da Coca’s Hostel’), and is one of the many Badb or Mórrígna stories often quoted or referred to, but rarely read or studied.

Let’s change that?

It is available online, though only in a translation by Whitley Stokes, unfortunately, who is not my favourite scholar by any means.

The Summary on CODECS reads:

After the death of Conchobar, the Ulaid debate who to give the kingship to, and decide on Conchobar’s son, Cormac Cond Longas, who is in exile in Connacht. They send envoys, and Ailill and Medb agree to allow Cormac to take up the kingship. He sets out with a retinue, but Craiphtine the harper, whose wife has slept with Cormac, causes Cormac to break his gessa on the journey. Cormac encounters the Badb in the form of an old woman washing a bloody chariot at the ford. A party of Connachta encounter Cormac’s party. They fight several battles, and heroes on both sides are killed. Cormac’s party spend the night at Da Coca’s hostel, which comes under siege by the Connachta, and Cormac is killed, along with nearly everybody on both sides.

https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Bruiden_Da_Choca

The bit with the Badb is what we’ll be looking at here today, though the rest is also quite fascinating with regard to the Ulster Cycle as a whole, and Queen Medb of Connacht in particular.

Badb as the Washer at the Ford

This is the excerpt that is pictured above, and appears on Page 157 of the Revue Celtique text that can be found here:

“Thence they went to Druim Airthir, which is now called The Garman, on the brink of Athlone. Then they unyoke their chariots. As they were there they saw a red woman on the edge of the ford, washing her chariot and its cushions and its harness. When she lowered her hand, the bed of the river became red with gore and with blood. But when she raised her hand over the river’s edge, not a drop therein but was lifted on high; so that they went dryfoot over the bed of the river.”

I was curious as to where this place might be located, as I’m a bit of a freak for finding and visiting (and tour guiding at!) locations associated with the Mórrígan in Ireland… so I did a bit of digging. And found this:

Druim Airthir, where coursed the steeds, was its name, before it was called Druim Criaich.

The Metrical Dindshenchas – poem/story 13

This fits with Drumcree (Droim Cria), Gormanstown, Co. Westmeath. There are a number of lakes nearby, but as the text specifically mentions the Ford, I’m going to opt for somewhere along what is now called the River Deel as the likeliest location, with around the place that the road crosses over it as a likely fording point.

View it on a Map here

Anyway, on with the text, which all too commonly and very frustratingly, leaves out the verse and prophecy parts:

“Most horrible is what the woman does! says Cormac. Let one of you go and ask her what she is doing. Then someone goes and asked her what she did. And then, standing on one foot, and with one eye closed, she chanted to them, saying: « I wash the harness of a king who will perish » etc.

The messenger came to Cormac and told him the evil prophecy which the Badb had made for him. Apparently thy coming is a cause of great evil, says Cormac. Then Cormac goes to the edge of the ford to have speech with her, and asked her whose was the harness that she was a-washing. And then he uttered the lay: « O woman, what harness washest thou? » etc.

The Badb. « This is thine own harness, O Cormac, And the harness of thy men of trust, » etc. Evil are the omens that thou hast for us, says Cormac. Grimly thou chattest to us.”


Badb at Da Coca’s Hostel

The Badb at Da Coca’s Hostel

The Badb appears again further on, once they get to the Hostel.

“Dâ Choca entered the house, together with fifty apprentices, and his wife, even Luath, daughter of Lumm Lond. They make Cormac and his army welcome. Then they (all) take their seats in the house.

Now when they were there, they saw coming to them towards the Hostel a bigmouthed, swarthy, swift, sooty woman, and she lame and squinting with her left eye. She wore a mantle threadbare (?) and very dusky. Dark as the back of a stag-beetle was every joint of her from crown to ground. Her filleted grey hair fell back over her shoulder. She leant her shoulder against the doorpost, and began prophesying evil to the host, and uttering ill words, so that she said this:

« Sad will they be in the Hostel: bodies will be severed in bloods,
Trunks will be headless, above the clay of Dâ Choca’s Hostel. »

Then the Badb went from them, and…

This is reminiscent of her appearance in Togail Bruidne Da Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, an earlier tale which has many similar elements. Be careful not to mix them up, though a lot more scholarly work has been done on Da Derga than Da Choca.

In his footnotes, Stokes says:

“Chanting spells, standing on one foot and with one eye shut, is a common incident in Irish magic. So Lugh sings round the Irish army to ensure their success, Rev. Celt., XII, 98. So in the Bruden Dà Derga, LU. 86″32, Cailb chants her baleful prophecy… ‘(standing) on one foot and (using only) one hand and (breathing only) one breath’. Compare also the Dinnsenchas of Loch da Caech, Rev. Celt., XV, 432, where Cicul’s three hundred men come, each using only one foot, one hand and one eye.”

Revue Celtique (1870)

Hopefully now, this has given you a clearer picture around the appearances of the Badb in the tale of Da Coca’s Hostel, and an exciting new physical location associated with the Mórrígan for us to visit.

Watch for that in the Patreon, where we do monthly Site Visits to sacred places in Ireland, and you get to come along!

Join Lora’s Patreon Here.

Enroll in our Intro to the Mórrígan Course Here.